Mentees, friends and colleagues of Berky Nelson stepped up to the podium at the center of Pauley Pavilion on Tuesday and put on a UCLA baseball cap, before recounting memories of the former UCLA faculty member.
“In Berky’s honor … I have to put on a cap,” said Keith Parker, assistant vice chancellor of the Office of Government and Community Relations, who introduced the memorial event. During his time at UCLA, Nelson became known for his signature blue cap.
About 200 people attended the event Tuesday to honor H. Viscount “Berky” Nelson, who died in October. Several people at the event said he played a large role in student affairs and increasing diversity at UCLA since the 1960’s.
Nelson began working at UCLA in 1969 as the director of campus programs and activities. Throughout his years, he became a mentor to several UCLA students.
The event opened with a video interview with Nelson. In the recording, Nelson shook his head modestly after the interviewer told him some students considered him a great mentor.
PHOTO GALLERY: UCLA remembers Berky Nelson for decades of service
“I can only accept with humility,” Nelson said in the video. “I hope that person will influence more people than I could.”
Kevin Tolbert, president of the UCLA Black Alumni Association, said he remembers moving into Sproul Hall in 1980. He was intimidated because he was the only black student on his floor and didn’t know what to expect, but meeting Nelson helped him find his place.
“It was great for me to meet a black man in authority at UCLA,” Tolbert said.
Several people spoke about their experiences with Nelson, including UCLA Athletics Director Dan Guerrero, Janina Montero, vice chancellor of student affairs, and Chris and Berk Nelson, Berky Nelson’s sons.
Robert Naples, who was the associate vice chancellor and dean of students for nearly 20 years, said he was Berky Nelson’s supervisor, but considered him a good friend and ally.
“(Nelson) was brilliantly astute,” Naples said. “(He was) one of the smartest individuals I have met, well read and opinionated. He would do anything for anyone and was a good friend of students.”
Naples said he remembers how well Nelson handled difficult situations. In 1998, a student protest broke out after Chancellor Albert Carnesale refused to contest Proposition 209, which prohibited universities from considering ethnicity, race, sex and other factors in their admissions.
“I had responsibility (ultimately) but he was always in the middle (of it),” Naples said. “(Nelson) took the lead in dealing with leaders of the protest so they can make their statements. He always got to the heart of it by figuring out what people wanted to achieve. ”
Derrick Mims met Nelson when he started working in the Office of Government and Community Relations at UCLA in 1990 to improve the off-campus community in Los Angeles.
“When you work with students and the community, you work with Berky Nelson,” he said.
Mims, a USC alumnus, smiled as he recalled the way he and Nelson used to tease each other about the fact that he came from UCLA’s notorious rival.
“I used to say I was at UCLA for my missionary work, and he’d come back with a witty response about trying to bring me to civilization,” Mims said with a laugh. “Working with him, I became a better man. We stayed focused on our mission, but we had fun doing it.”
He said he used to turn on the news at night to watch protests and rallies at universities and would find out Nelson had been right in the middle of them.
“He was always physically trying to make a difference,” Mims said. “ Not from up high, not as an administrator – he was on the ground. His impact and legacy will always be here.”